Blue & Grey Campaign Day 5: Personal Connections
But before we went to Antietam Creek (AKA the Battle of Sharpsburg) we took a short, unplanned detour in Harpers Ferry at the recommendation of one of the rangers at the Harpers Ferry Visitor Center yesterday. Only a few blocks from our hotel was the battlefield at Boliver Heights where, just two days before the battle of Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862, three columns of Confederate forces under the command of Stonewall Jackson surrounded nearly 15,000 Union troops at Harpers Ferry and Bolivar Heights on three sides and, with little actual fighting, forced the surrender of 12,500 Union troops, clearing the way for the bloody battle at Antietam Creek.
We arrived at Bolivar Heights early in the morning as the fog was beginning to lift at the eriely silent former battlefield. Alone at the site, we walked among gun emplacements and faint remnants of trench work where thousands of soldiers once lived and died. We wondered what it must have been like for the soldiers who battled for the high ground above the majestic confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers at Harpers Ferry.
A short ride of only 15 miles brought us to the battlefield of Antietam Creek. Many other visitors also decided to mark the 152nd anniversary of the battle, and by the time we arrived at 10 a.m. the parking lot was full and the grass overflow parking lot had begun to fill up as well.
Fortunately, though, we walked into the Visitor Center just as one of several walking tours scheduled for the day was about to begin and eight of us opted to make the trek around a portion of the battlefield known as the Cornfield and the West Woods where the heaviest early morning fighting occurred
Ranger Dan who led the tour was knowledgable, animated and told a good story about the battle and the men who fought there. We joined more than a dozen other visitors at a large New York State monument near the visitor center and began our 90 minute walking tour, mostly through the West Woods. Dan ticked off the regiments, brigades, divisions, corps and other military units with alacrity, but he also added personal stories of individuals who fought in those units to make an impersonal battle more personal. We learned of the 5,000 casualities in one hour of fighting. And we learned of individual soldiers who left behind wives, mothers, sons and daughters as they went to fight for a cause they believed to be just and honorable.
At the end of the tour, at a monument erected in 1896 to honor the men of the Philadelphia brigade, Dan told one more story of an average private, a poor man with a wife and two children from Michigan who volunteered to fight for the Union. He was wounded and died at Antietam and buried in an unmarked grave. His widow was left to raise two children on a small government pension. That average soldier was Dan’s Great-Great Grandfather and the impact that final bit of information had on us and the rest of the tour group was palpable. We all walked slowly back to the visitor center with a new appreciation of the personal and lasting nature of war.
Temporarily (we thought) forgoing lunch, we decided to spend another couple hours at the site watching a movie on the battle and visiting other famous locations on that bloody field. We went to the Sunken Road which was renamed Bloody Lane after the heavy fighting there in late morning and early afternoon. There, Confederate soldiers had the perfect cover to fire at advancing Yankee troops, causing casualites as high as 50% and more among attacking forces. When the Rebels were finally flanked on their right and enfilade fire in turn decimated their ranks, they were sent reeling to the rear.
And we went to Burnsides Bridge, where Union troops under the command of General Ambrose Burnside tried desparately for four hours to cross Antietam Creek on a narrow stone bridge before finally succeeding and taking the field on the south side of the river where it looked like they would deliver a crushing, and perhaps final blow, to Lee’s battered troops.
But they in turn were attacked by recently arrived troops who had made a 14-hour march from Harpers Ferry, and the crushing Union victory which seemed within reach began to slip away. And that leads to another personal story.
Fellow campaigner Jimmy Gardner believed his Great Grandfather had been at Antietam and a check with a helpful Park volunteer and the database to which he had access proved Jimmy right. He had been a private in the 15th South Carolina Infantry of Drayton’s Brigade, which arrived at Sharpsburg in time to turn back Burnside’s advance. We visited the spot on the field where their fighting took place, and a proud Jimmy Gardner beamed as he looked over the land where his Great Grandfather had once fought. Nearly a year later, his ancestor fought again at Gettysburg, where he was captured and sent for the remainder of the war to a Union prison camp. Jimmy’s ancestral connection once more made the impersonal very personal. It was a pleasure to share the moment with him.
By the end of our time at the battlefield, it was after 3 p.m. and we decided to skip lunch altogether and opt for an early dinner at Gettysburg, our destination for the day. While we had less than 50 miles to go to reach the famous little Pennsylvania town, we rode some of the best roads so far as we rolled up and down the mountain and forest roads that wound through Catoctin Mountain National Park, which includes part of the eastern rampart of the Appalachian Mountains. Shaded, cool and nicely paved, the road was a nice finish to the day.
Tomorrow we’ll spend a full day at Gettysburg National Military Park, probably the best preserved of all Civil War battlefields.